Let Me Tell You a Story

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Are you interested in an authentic, integrated-skills activity that can be adapted to any level, incorporated into any theme, and prepared in less than 10 minutes?

The activity is storytelling and it’s a universal feature of all human cultures.

I first came across a version of a story reconstruction activity in a British Council video during my TESL training. I have since modified this task for use across a variety of contexts, themes, and proficiency levels and it is now one of the most requested activities in my classes.

Here’s what I do: First, I select a personal story in accordance with the lesson theme. I’ve found that using a personal story as a listening text engages learners in authentic story sharing, and creates a more personal connection with the class. In the past, I have told stories about fear and phobias (the time I refused to descend into a narrow cave in Hungary), culture shock and homesickness (my first weeks living in China), celebrations (planning what to do for my birthday), and more.

After choosing a story, I write down four or five key points that represent the structure of my story (introduction, main details, relation to theme, conclusion). The rest of my story is spontaneous, allowing for all the natural elements of spoken English to emerge – pauses, hesitations, discourse markers, digressions, etc. Since it’s my story, I can choose what details to include. Because it’s spontaneous, I can respond to learners in the moment and make any necessary changes in speed, provide on-the-spot clarifications, or rephrase problematic word choices.

Before telling my story, I explain the task to my learners. They listen to me speak for 1 or 2 minutes, and then orally reconstruct what I said with a partner for another minute or so. As they reconstruct each story section, I monitor to get a sense of what details they understood. I repeat this process about 4 times, depending on the length of the story.

Following the final story section, I incorporate a writing activity. Depending on the level of the class, I sometimes decide to provide learners with the same key words that I wrote down for myself, and ask them to reconstruct a written summary in groups. I provide feedback on their writing in a later class, usually through a written reformulation that they analyze together with the original summary. Other times, I ask learners to respond with their own story related to the lesson theme, usually as a homework assignment.

Not only does this storytelling activity integrate listening, speaking and writing skills, but it can be modified to incorporate specific grammar points as well. For example, when I told a story about planning my birthday celebration to a high-beginner class, my teaching point for that lesson was the use of the present perfect with already, yet and still. Part of the weekly module also focused on adding details in narrative writing. After telling my story, I asked learners to add details to the following sentences: Rebecca’s birthday is next month, but she hasn’t decided what she wants to do yet; Rebecca has already decided that she doesn’t want to have a party this year; Rebecca is thinking of planning a trip, but she still hasn’t decided where she wants to go.

Storytelling has been one of the most meaningful and engaging activities that I have used with my learners. After trying it out for the first time and seeing a room full of adults on the edges of their seats in anticipation of what I would share next, I was hooked. I hope you will try it out too. Let me know if you do!

Rebecca Schmor currently teaches Academic English at the University of Toronto and German at Hansa Language Centre.


2 thoughts on “Let Me Tell You a Story”

  1. Thanks for sharing your story-writing activity, Rebecca.

    I think that story writing is a great way for students to learn and practice their language skills and do so in a meaningful and creative way!

    I sometimes bring in old photos that I’ve amassed from antique stores. I have them write a story about what is happening in the picture and they need to incorporate whatever writing or grammar point we are working on. Once their imaginations get going, they almost forget that they are learning something!

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for your comment. That sounds like a creative way to incorporate storytelling into the classroom!

      Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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